Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Did Another Week Fly By?

Immediately after posting last week, I (a) finished my drawings (b) enjoyed opening-day at Another Subcontinent's online exhib of my prints travels on an elepHAND and (c) finished reading Iain M. Banks's THE ALGEBRAIST. I've already pretty much talked about the previous two items, so that leaves the third one to discuss.

I've only read one of his books before and was very impressed -- THE PLAYER OF GAMES (it's a title I keep forgetting and keep being reminded of by the Babu-of-Kitabkhana's partner, DD). But I remember finding it quite difficult to get into that book. By contrast with this one, however, the first one was like reading a nursery rhyme. Literally -- in fact, I don't think I really got into it at all until I was practically at the end of it. And yet ... I'd recommend it. Highly.

Well only to science fiction fans of course, because this is the real stuff, the hard-core, rocketz'n'aliens stuff. But WHAT a grand scale. If I have to identify a single element that makes Banks's books so amazing, it's the level of detail he brings to the work, not as decoration but as structure. I think any other Banks-reader here will know what I mean -- his detail isn't merely surface-level, but miles deep into the narrative. In this book, for instance, the scale isn't merely galactic it's ... what word can I use? -- megachronometric -- I mean, it involves a scale of time that leaves poor little mayfly-species such as ourselves gasping in the slipstream of reality.

I will NOT pretend that I read every page of the book -- truly, it amazes me that I got through it at all, because for long pauses all the way through, I simply didn't WANT to up-load so much minutae about civilizations and planetary physics that I would never need outside the covers of Banks' fiction. And the story isn't really the kind the grabs the reader by the short hairs either -- it's about ... errrm, lemme see ... about researchers whose subject is a species of spheroidal beings living in gas-giant planets -- okay, so I've lost you already? But there's also a war being threatened and a super-nasty villain and -- I've lost you again, haven't I?

Okay, the book is amazing because it's written as if the reader is already wholly conversant with the times and events with which it concerns itself, while managing not to be utterly impenetrable. I can't quite explain what kept me going, skimming pages as I went along, trying to catch the thread of story, giving up, wanting to give up, trying hard to give up and yet ... going back for more. The main character, Fasin Taak, is just barely recognizable as a human being, though of course there have been changes to our type of being in the future in which the story is set -- 4034 AD, according to the description posted at Amazon. I basically ignored all attempts to keep track of the time-scale because it quickly made our own scale and time irrelevant.

The object of Taak's research is a species called The Dwellers -- they live in gas giants -- i.e., planets similar to our solar system's Jupiter -- and part of the book's fascination lies in Taak's fascination with these beings -- I couldn't decide what Banks had used as a model for them -- were they gods of the Greek era? Or the elite of our era? Or some combination tiger-elephant-bee society? They have a quality of magnificence and amorality and beyond-our-scale that is breath-taking and I suppose it was the desire to know more, understand more, about these beings that kept me reading on.

The formal "hook" is that Taak is on a mission that may help avert a catastrophic war, and then again, is apparently the CAUSE of the war and then again, will almost certainly catalyse a death-struggle if he succeeds -- and the mission is to find a ... something. It may be code of some sort or perhaps an actual artefact, a Rosetta-stone-type of thing that may or may not be in the possession of a Dweller who is mysteriously and annoyingly hard to trace ...

No, it's not an easy book to read and an almost impossible one to describe. But it left me feeling sparkled and starry, touched by infinity. (I haven't checked to see if the links work. Will return to check and fix 'em if need be, later)

Monday, March 21, 2005

A New Link

It's been a while since I posted any new links in the column on the right -- but there's one there now (or SHOULD be ... haven't checked yet) for ANOTHER SUBCONTINENT. Of course I've only just managed to realize that I should've posted a link long ago -- the reason I've realized it now is that AS has very generously offered to host an wwwexhibition of my prints at their site. It's not ready for visitors yet, but will be very soon -- another day or so, I think.

Since I've been working nonstop on the drawings for my little book, I've offered very little support to ARNAB CHAKLADAR, whose idea it was to have the show, aside from sending him a CD of the work(and I took forever to get around to doing that too ...). So what you see there, once it's up, is entirely due to the midnight oil expended by the team at AS -- I don't know if the "team" is actually just Arnab or whether there are others too, but the site works very smoothly and I'm delighted with the way the pix look.

Meanwhile, my illustrations are DONE -- they should've been done four days ago, but since last Wednesday we've had two very interesting live-in guests -- Ian, who was here earlier, but had gone away on a bike-back trip in South India, with his friend Inji (this is a deliberate misspelling of her Turkish name, but that's how it's pronounced) whom he had arranged to meet in Bangalore -- both flew in to India from Turkey, where they live. They've been great to have around and on Saturday night, made us a Turkish dinner -- vegetarian and delicious -- and left the following morning for the hills. They didn't do anything to distract me, but I quickly realized that there's more to life than just sitting at a desk ... Right. So I got distracted and finally finished work only last night. I am now erasing pencil marks, whiting out mistakes and wallowing in the pleasurable aftermath of one more job completed. The book (a Puffin pub) is called "UNPRINCESS!" (yes, with the exclamation mark) and should be out in May.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Assorted Freebies

After all the effort that went into planning the evening event of March 4th, I think it makes sense to (at the very least) note, one week later, that it went off very well.

If any of you recall reading the posts leading up to the event, you will perhaps also remember that my offering towards the evening was to get Billy's (i.e., Billy Arjan Singh, of Tiger Haven, tiger specialist extraordinaire and recipient of the 2004 Paul Getty Award for wild-life preservation) book A TIGER'S STORY reprinted in time for the event. It took every minute of two weeks to get the thing done -- but LITERALLY. I had 150 copies ready for delivery at the venue of the party at FOUR O'CLOCK. Nervous? O yes. But whatdya think of that timing -- 2 weeks? For a 300-page book, with colour-pictures?? Not bad, huh.

The event was built around the film THE LEOPARD THAT CHANGED ITS SPOTS that I'd seen earlier in Tiger Haven. It was much nicer, of course, to see it on a bigger screen (rather than on a TV) and also rather wonderful to see how the audience responded to seeing Billy in the film as a young man (well, probably in his forties)(but that's YOUNG, right?) playing with his leopard and tiger, while also being able to see him sitting in the front of the room (the basement of the West End Club), 86 years old, bent with age, but still bright with purpose. Many people were deeply moved and rushed up, to speak to him and to buy the book. And also to eat the very lavish dinner, spend a few minutes with Billy and get him to sign their copies of the book. All praise to Anuj Bahri and his production manager, Ravi Kumar, for getting the book out in record time.

Further to International Women's Day -- despite feeling annoyed, patronized and alienated by the observance -- I agreed to join dancer SHARON LOWEN at a lunch arranged by I'm-not-sure-who, at the NIKKO HOTEL, near GolDakhana post-office. The (to me unknown) hostess had invited a number of well-known women to the lunch, and had told THEM to invite three others of their choice. Hence my invitation -- Sharon's other two guests were Alka Raghuvanshi, journalist and Jane Schukoske Executive Director at USEFI. My only reason for going was that I like Sharon and felt that her company over a free lunch would make up for the irritation of IWD in a public place(and it did).

I've never been to that hotel and (of course) got there early. I never, NEVER remember that there's no point reaching any social event on time, because nobody else does. I was shown up to "CHUTNEY", a restaurant that looked like a pleasing though unlikely marriage of Arabian & Indian Nights and was immediately given a glass of orange juice. Sharon and Jane arrived 10 minutes later but they were still 20 minutes ahead of the rest of the ladies -- and Alka got in a cool 30 minutes after we'd begun to eat, since she had just gone in for a shower when Sharon called her at 1.00. Ah well. International WD or not, the majority of the invitees were certainly running on Indian Standard Time.

We sat in sets of four, at separate tables, which was a real boon as the other women at this event -- most of them hard-core Page Three glamourites -- were so raucous it was hard to believe they had not been penned up in isolation wards for the whole year since their previous IWD. The food was pleasant enough, easy to linger over and not so much as to produce that well-fed-anaconda feeling. The unusual feature of the menu was the number of unusual condiments -- about nine different sorts of chutneys (some of which leaned heavily in the direction of jams) made from such unorthodox materials as, for instance, apple and bamboo. Champagne and wine were flowing, but our table was restrained, since all four of us expected to be working after lunch. The conversation at our table was good too -- we managed to steer clear of Women's Topics and ... ooh ... gotta go! Will return later.

This is later -- I'm leaving in that bit about getting back, because it makes this blog sound up-to-the-minute and spontaneous -- which it IS. I'm writing this on Sunday night, which happens to be the time of week when my sister in Pennsylvania calls me and we have a chat to catch up on the week-that-was.

So yes, the conversation at the IWD lunch was good -- and we even managed not to be freaked by the TV cameras that came over and stared at us in that unbelievably intrusive way. It must be horrible to be a celebrity and to have to endure this bizarre presence, this camera-person lurking like a gigantic butterfly with its proboscis stuck practically down our gullets as we pretend to continue eating and talking, even as we realize that our mandibles might feature on the evening news, churning away like cement-mixers. I make sure I've rarely actually seen myself on TV, so that I don't die of self-consciousness whenever next I'm asked to be on.

Ever since that lunch, I've been working continuously on the illustrations for a book -- my own text -- about three rather odd and (I hope) funny girls. Well I began the illustrations about a month ago -- did around ten -- took a break and now I'm a little over half-done. Ninety pages -- it's a small paperback, and the drawings are ordinary blank/whites, not very detailed -- but every page is embellished. I'm enjoying myself -- it's been a very long while since I illustrated a whole book -- I think the last one was part of the series of six English Language text books I did in 1981, for OUP ... ooooh ... a life-time ago.

The illustrations I've done more recently for my own two MOUSE books hardly count -- they're just little bitty things, chapter-openers, nothing more. The ones I'm doing now are substantial -- some of them fill the pages edge-to- edge (with gaps, of course, for the text) -- to the extent that the book is going to look rather like a picture book with a bit of text to explain what's going on! I've mentioned in an earlier post that I'm doing the drawings FREE -- now that I'm almost through with them, I am more than ever amazed that I've been willing to to do them -- I can hear myself answering angry questions from other illustrators -- telling me that I'm "ruining the market" by working for free but ... I don't care.

I've spent a large chunk of my life now, NOT doing illustrations, because publishers have (a) offered such lousy deals that I wasn't able to afford to accept them (b) offered such lousy manuscripts to illustrate that I didn't want to waste my time and effort on them. However: I'm going to be 52 this year and already I can no longer draw as well as I used to, in my 20s and 30s. I'm still not being offered prices at which I can AFFORD to draw -- but I feel I'm running out of time! I constantly feel that I've got to scrape up whatever minutes and hours left to me, to do such drawings as are still within my reach -- I mean, I can see that the ones I'm doing now are far below the standards I set myself even 10 years ago, but this is all I can manage for free -- anything more and I'd miss my deadline (mid-next-week) as well as feel resentful. By doing these drawings for free, I can at least enjoy the sense of being generous rather than the much more familiar sense of being under-valued.

It's a curious thing: being paid for something coarsens the whole exchange, but if the price is high enough, the coarseness becomes acceptable -- yes, it's like that hackneyed old joke -- I won't even bother telling it -- there's some mystical number beyond which it becomes satisfying to be paid, rather than embarrassing and/or humiliating. For some reason I've never managed to make a living as an illustrator -- and eventually I stopped illustrating altogether because it used to get me seriously depressed to enter into yet another contract that was going to end with me feeling used and my drawings in the possession of someone who had paid too little for them -- and therefore didn't really value them.

I realize that wage-earners won't understand the issue here at all but maybe there are a few of you out there who know what it's like to be doing something that's normally a source of income, for FREE -- it's very odd, almost almost unpleasant -- after all, the reason is still the old one, i.e., it's STILL because publishers will not pay me a good price for my work, hence it's not really by my choice -- and yet, because I could just as easily have chosen not to do ANY drawings, I could have chosen to hold back and be practical, economical, cold-blooded and sensible -- it's good and heady to just fill the book with drawings ANYWAY.

Yeh. Good.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Women's Day Ho-ho-ho-hum

As will come as no surprise, I find Women's Day annoying and demeaning -- but then I remind myself that I'm only superficially a human female (in reality I'm an extra-terrestrial belonging to a species that doesn't reproduce at all -- we develop spontaneously as and when the cosmos calls us into existence. Thereafter we waft about the galaxy in our happy gender-neutral way until we feel it's time to die) and that makes me feel all better.

In order to cheer those of you who are feeling unusually gloomy at the prospect of "celebrating" the day during which one half of humanity gets a chance to express its humble gratitude for being given a WHOLE DAY to be yet more conscious of its victimhood and lowly status in the world, such that it needs to be patronized by having a day earmarked to itself -- a list of slightly altered words, with definitions to match. I believe I've seen some (but not all) the words before. *shrug* Whatever. They're good.

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational

The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational once again asked readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing one letter, and supply a new definition.

Here are this year's winners. (None of them get through spellcheck)

1. Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

2. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

3. Bozone (n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

4. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

5. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.

6. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.

7. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

8. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

9. Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off these bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic fit (n.): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito that gets into yourbedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor (n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

And the pick of the literature:

18. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.
I would like to add:

19. Juoy: A happy buoy.

20. Gigolow: A very short male professional escort.

21. Cornivore: One who lives on silly jokes.

22. Serendipotamus: Pleasurable chance encounters with hippos. (this breaks the one-letter-only rule, but I couldn't resist. Another possibility: Serendipita: The happy coincidence of finding fresh Mediterranean bread on your plate)

23. Dalicious: The taste of one of Dali's melting clocks -- i.e., like raw eggs and thyme.

24. Gnuance: A subtle wildebeest.

25. Lingerue: Underwear that the wearer regrets wearing -- the scarlet lace thong the admiral wore on the day his pants fell off in full view of the entire fleet, for instance.

26: Origasmi: The bliss of folding bodies together.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Unusual Recipes Dept.

If some of you are astonished to find this blog offering a recipe, well keep your eyebrows flying -- they'll get up there anyway when you read what I had for lunch today! It's not disgusting, relax. But you'll have to wait to get to it, after I've got through describing a fascinating and very intense book I read the other day, galloping all the way.

It's called A PROFOUND SECRET, by Josceline Dimbleby (Jossy to friends). She's much better known as a creative and very popular food writer in England and is also my elder sister's Geeta's friend from about 20 years ago, when they met on a small boat in the Andamans. She and G and I were together on a (for us) historic journey by car travelling upwards diagonally across the Deccan Plateau, from Bangalore, having got there from Madras by train to Bijapur. Anyway, this is all besides the point, as the book is a very absorbing read and doesn't require anything in the way of historic journeys to make it worth acquiring. Alas, it is not yet available on the Indian market, but I hope it will be soon.

It's been described by some reviewers as similar to A.S.Byatt's POSSESSION but better, because true. In the way of nonfiction, it doesn't have the familiar satisfactions of a novel, but instead it opens up other avenues for enjoyment. For instance it provides the revelation, for those of us who may need it (me, yes), that there really are (or were, anyway) forms of passion that were wholly romantic and ethereal. The narrative concerns a romance discovered -- by Jossy -- between her great grandmother May Gaskell and the famous pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. It is followed through the medium of letters, mostly, and also through photographs. But WHAT letters, oh my goodness! So fresh, so passionate, so precisely detailed in their examination of the condition of love! By comparison, the over-cooked scenes we see in movies and on TV, or read of in today's fiction appear like hot vanilla fudge besides ... ohh ... a delicate champagne sorbet.

Alongside this story, another and more tragic one unfolds: that of May's beautiful daughter Amy. Jossy knew only that her great-aunt had died unseasonably young and perhaps as a result of a disappointment in romance, but had no further details. The book follows a trail of tantalizing clues until ... well, I won't spoil the enjoyment for potential readers, but I will say that I found the exposition warm and human, as we follow J's path through quiet libraries and inside gracious old churches.

Burne-Jones sometimes wrote five letters a day to May -- and there were seven posts, daily, for him to use as a medium for delivery! Seven posts -- ! This was in 1892-93. Do we really do better with SMS and e-mail? Even to ask the queation is ridiculous. It is really difficult to reconcile the wild intensity of these letters with the extremely strait-laced view my generation (certainly) has/had of the Victorians -- yet here they are, absolute testimony. They seem almost hysterical and yet these were people in their middle-years (he was in his fifties, and while she was much younger, she already had two children when she met him) and he was a highly acclaimed and industrious painter.

Not merely the quality of their love, but also the refinement that the people in this book brought to the whole fabric of their lives is what lingers in my mind as I think back on the book. A tremendous, hugely self-aware refinement, like the lace they wore around the necks and at their wrists, somehow heart-breakingly fine. Why "heart-breaking"? When I try to push myself away, looking for perspective, when I try to remind myself that these were also colonials, that their friends and relatives of the same era were involved in a gigantic socio-cultural operation out in the colonies -- I can only feel a kind of pain, that we as a species are so diverse and perverse that it's all but impossible to see around the thickets of complexity. So much sensitivity on the one hand, coupled with so much barbarism on the other ... what does it all mean? How do we make sense of it?

I cannot help thinking, as I write this, of my response to MAXIMUM CITY (which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago) -- where we see barbarism on a scale undreamt of by the colonials, described with exteme precision, like a surgeon exposing the entrails of a gigantic corpse, a corpse the size of a sub-continent, stinking with the filth of centuries. Truly, by the end of MC, I wanted nothing more than to close the book and throw it away and to purge its contents from my memory. It ends with a section on a family of Jains, father, mother and three children who take "diksha", renouncing the world and all their wealth. It is, perhaps, intended as a type of balm to set against the ghastliness of some of the previous chapters of the book. But -- as others have noted before me -- the renunciation was all of a piece with the brutality of the thugs and ghouls of Bombay's Underworld: it was so extreme, so without human dimension, so mechanical and grotesque, that it made a mockery of the intention -- i.e., of renouncing the sin-steeped world.

I don't know what to make of these contrasts and anomalies. All I can do, for the moment, is to note them, and to hope that writing about them is a way of sharing the disturbance they cause in me, and by passing that disturbance around, perhaps, smooth it out eventually.

... abruptly, and with only the briefest pause to apologize for the change of pace, I will now turn to the promised recipe.

I'm calling it FRANCIS' MYSTERY SOUP -- and the reason for calling it that is that if a diner were to be told the mystery ingredient, I believe he/she would immediately choke with scorn. Nevertheless, let me say I had this soup for lunch today and LOVED it. Okay, I have to tell YOU what the mystery ingredient is or else I can't write out the recipe: strawberries.

In case some of you are already grimacing let me say that Francis, Our In-House Chef, DID find an existing recipe in one of his mini-library of cook-books, for Strawberry Soup. However it called for "5 cups of port" -- which, with 1.5 cups of strawberries pretty much makes it into Port Soup. And might best be served after dinner, in small glasses, with cheese on the side ...

F's Mystery Soup, by contrast, is much simpler. He's used to making cold beetroot soup (totally delicious and such a gorgeous ruby-cream colour!) so I advised him to follow that route. He cleaned the strawberries, boiled them in water with a little salt and sugar, then put them through the blender after adding an equal volume of dahi (yoghurt/curds). He put the result away (about one-and-a-half cups of soup) in the freezer before serving it, chilled. He used about 120 g of strawberries and I can't imagine anyone is going to need more in the way of directions -- but tomorrow I have asked him to try the same soup, but with spring onions blended in as well, and served hot.

If it turns out well, I'll post a more precise recipe in "comments". If not ... well, I'll admit to that too!